Cover Me Q&A: What’s a favorite country & western cover of a non-country & western song?
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a favorite country & western cover of a non-country & western song?
What I like best about the Unholy Trio‘s cover of “Bring the Noise” by Public Enemy is the sheer audacity of it. Of all the adjectives applied to Public Enemy’s music – “revolutionary,” “chaotic,” and “influential,” just to get the ball rolling – the very last one that would ever come to anybody’s mind would be “hillbilly.” Which is just the direction the Unholy Trio take it, turning “Bring the Noise” from a call to action into a low-fi hoedown, complete with a guitar solo that veers into and out of “I Wish I Was in Dixie.”
There’s more going on here than cross-pollination; a point is being made. An audience that would never want to listen to this music, an audience that would never want to listen to these lyrics – have they been united in their dislike for what happened to this song? Or are they united in their amazement at what happened to it? Can’t we all just get along? (Apparently not, if this YouTube video of sidewalk scuffling is any indication.) At any rate, this cover takes risks, and to my mind, it works beyond all expectations.
Lera Lynn is currently getting acclaim for the song she cowrote with T Bone Burnett and Roseanne Cash that shows up in the new True Detective trailer. Although relatively new on the scene, the Nashville artist is no stranger to covers, having covered both Neutral Milk Hotel and Bob Dylan. Lynn surgically removes TV on the Radio’s indy rock sound from “Wolf Like Me,” and delicately transplants a big Americana heart that is beating just as strong.
I can’t remember where I first caught Amy Speace‘s version of Blondie’s “Dreaming,” but wouldn’t be surprised if it was when I was a mere reader of this blog – it remaining etched in my memory as a cover that both retains and rewrites all the essentials of a good version of a song well-known. As sung by Debbie Harry, the original song is overtly urban, with a spiky edge to its melody, the lyric almost one of resignation; if I can’t have you, well, at least I can dream. This version, slowed just a bit, far gentler in its bite, has notes of accepting consolation, as if the dream is just until the reality, a far more hopeful state of affairs. The vocal drips honey apropos Harry’s so-what attack. I now wonder why I never revisited Speace’s studio product. I’m thinking I will now, and if you’d care to join me, here‘s a link. This song is on 2006’s Songs From Bright Street.
I don’t know if this cover of “Redemption Song” is really “country & western” or not, but it has Johnny Cash singing, so it must be. Bob Marley, of course, sang the original, with lyrics based in part on the words of Marcus Garvey. The version released on Uprising, the last album released by Marley during his lifetime, was just Marley and an acoustic guitar. A couple of decades later, Rick Rubin was working with Johnny Cash on what turned out to be his last album. Joe Strummer happened to be in Los Angeles on vacation and decided to hang around the studio, because he was a big fan of Cash. Rubin recorded versions of “Redemption Song” as a duet and separately with both singers. The duet version, which features Tom Morello on guitar, was released on Unearthed, a box set of outtakes, alternative versions and other unreleased tracks, which came out a couple of months after Cash died. Strummer’s solo version was released on his final album, Streetcore, which came out less than a year after Strummer’s death. The gravity and sincerity of the performances are powerful enough, even without the knowledge that most of us never heard them until both musical icons, from different musical worlds, had passed away.
I remember March 2, 1988 like it was yesterday. That was the night I saw one of the biggest robberies happen on live TV, during the 30th Annual Grammy Awards, hosted by Billy Crystal.
That year, my 16-year-old self was all about U2 and their Joshua Tree album, which was up for three awards: Best Rock Duo or Group, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. I figured they were a shoo-in for the first two. For Album, they were up against Michael Jackson’s Bad, Whitney Houston’s Whitney, and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, top contenders all.
U2 had already won the Rock Group or Duo award, and Lena Horne and Quincy Jones had just come onstage to present the award for Record of the Year. Lena announced the nominees: Steve Winwood, “Back in the High Life Again”; Paul Simon, “Graceland”; U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; Los Lobos, “La Bamba”; Suzanne Vega, “Luka.”
Quincy Jones opened the envelope and announced the winner: Paul Simon, for “Graceland.”
My chin dropped to the floor. When I could speak again, I started a full-fledged rant to anybody who would listen about the robbery that just took place.
Now, I do not hate Simon, either with or without “and Garfunkel.” “The Boxer” and “Hazey Shade of Winter” are two of my favorite songs of all time. Plus, the guy was married to Princess Leia, for crying out loud! He probably lived the gold bikini fantasy that we all dreamed about back then. I should also mention that I owned – and loved – the Graceland album at the time. Admittedly, I bought it because I liked “You Can Call Me Al.” (Mostly because of Chevy Chase being in the music video.) I just wasn’t a fan of the song “Graceland.” I really don’t know why; there was just something about it that bugged me. After it beat U2, however, I just hated it.
That changed in 1993. My dad purchased the Willie Nelson album, Across the Borderline. Among original Willie songs are covers of John Hiatt, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan, as well as a couple from Paul Simon, including, you guessed it, “Graceland.” (Simon also co-produced the album.)
It is not all that different from the original – maybe a little more acoustic – but when I heard Willie’s unmistakable voice singing about driving to Memphis along the Mississippi, it’s like I finally heard the song as Paul Simon intended.
Growing up in the heyday of ‘90s alternative, I despised country music. Country was all twangy and midtempo, with those whining slide guitars that matched the complaints of the singers, usually about how their girl left town with their truck. But as I got older, my tastes began to change, and I moved more toward indie rock and blues-inspired rock. By the time I graduated college I had expanded my tastes to indie-folk and alt-country, and of course Johnny Cash was all right in my book. Finally, as I continued to dive deeper into the music I loved, I found that bluegrass, blues, and, yes, country, were often the inspiration for the artists I followed. There is still a form of country (I have heard it called “slick country”) that I find hard to stomach, but plenty of country has crept into my collection.
In exploring alt-country, I found a CD of acoustic songs by Dwight Yoakam; I had never, to my knowledge, heard a song by him, and this particular CD sounds nothing like the rest of his work. It was, however, a great introduction for me because of its simplicity and folky sound. His cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” is more in line with the rest of his honky tonk discography. It contains all those old elements I couldn’t stand as a kid: twang, steel slides, midtempo pacing, sappy lyrics, and what in the world is he wearing in that video? For some reason, though, there is something about the way this comes together that feels so much more fun than the original.
Radiohead’s The Bends (which turned 20 this year) seems to be a less-than-appropriately acknowledged record in the group’s catalogue. Why? Maybe because it sounds more like the previous record (the mostly forgettable Pablo Honey) than their next few records. Or maybe it’s just that their next two records would be considered decade-defining (how many “Best of the ‘00s” lists put Kid A at number one?). But no matter the reason, The Bends is a masterpiece in its own right, a document of a soon-to-be legendary band finding their footing.
Full disclosure: The Bends is this humble critic’s favorite Radiohead record, and my favorite song is “Black Star” (well, maybe second favorite after “Fake Plastic Trees”). It’s a strange song, if for nothing else that it begins with a fade in (how many other songs do that?). The guitar sound and lyrical content (it’s a love song, seemingly, though a depressing one) also seem to be holding on to some of the grunge aesthetics of their hit “Creep.”
So, when it comes to Gillian Welch’s cover, the approach seems to be little more than taking the frame work of the original and playing it like she would perform one of her own songs, a kind of Americana-in-a-blender aesthetic that has allowed Welch to work such a diverse group of artists over the years. The result gives the song’s lyrics (What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?) and makes them even sadder, the roughness of singer Thom Yorke’s vocals gone, the pleading more desperate, the emotions rawer. Basically, “Black Star” is a perfect country song in disguise, and thanks to Welch, we have the perfect country version.
What Johnny Cash did for “Hurt,” Willie Nelson’s done with “The Scientist.” That’s just about the only fitting comparison I can make right now. Willie’s “The Scientist” is an honest and emotionally stirring cover, ripe with elevated passion and chills-inducing moments scattered throughout those precious four minutes and eight seconds.
It is, quite simply put, different in all the best ways.
For starters, I’d wager to say few piano intros are as instantly and widely recognizable as the opening chords to “The Scientist” – the 2002 piano driven ballad by British quartet Coldplay. It’s hard to imagine “The Scientist” sans keys, yet somehow, Nelson manages to make do without the defining piano phrase of the Coldplay classic, instead opting for sublime guitar frameworks and his own unique voice to deliver a raw emotional overhaul.
Not to say the original wasn’t emotionally wrecking already – but Nelson’s “The Scientist” has a delicate quality to it that, to me, appears to one-up that of Coldplay’s. I dunno – my two cents, if you will. The country legend’s fragile vocals sprawled over beautiful slide guitars just seem to bring out a newfound passion in the mournful slow-burn ballad. As with Cash’s “Hurt,” Nelson’s gentle and tender vocal delivery elevates the song unto a separate plane of emotion, brought about by the straining weight of his unique voice and sparse accompaniment. Chris Martin’s signature falsetto may weaken the knees of many a woman (and man too, probably), but his vocals have got nothing on ol’ Willie’s low Texan drawl.
The cover first appeared in the Chipotle Mexican Grill-sponsored short film Back to the Start, in which a farmer goes from grassroots farming to factory farming, realises the error of his way, and hastily returns to a more sustainable method. Others might recognize the country take from the credits of the 2014 drama The Judge. A select few (like you, cherished reader) are just cover fans eagerly keeping up with the cover scene and know this gem like all the rest. Or are possibly hearing about this for the first time – in which case I urge you to listen to it after this. You won’t regret it.
I am in no way a country expert – the country scene has always been strange and intimidating for me, and it is a genre that I have never had the joy of exploring. But if /when I do explore it, it will be by grace of this cover.
This past year, I’ve begun driving across the state of Wisconsin to accommodate a complicated custody situation involving my reasonably happy but increasingly well-traveled son. These drives are long enough to thwart listening to NPR for more than twenty-nine minutes at a time and include stretches with nothing but classic rock, Christian talk, and contemporary country, a combination guaranteed to ensure that I don’t listen to a single station very long. Such restless scanning inevitably gives rise to extended musings about the nature of what might inaccurately but effectively be thought of as Red State music, music that would like to be thought of more simply as American Music. Given the reasons I am driving, such musings turn into reflections about how such music, ostensibly about the feelings and experiences of Average Americans, thinks about emotional subjects like marriage, faith, divorce, child rearing, and addiction.
To be short: I find the treatment of these things in most music I hear driving across the state of Wisconsin to be facile and troubling, more interested in codifying an interchangeable notion of average American experience than in actually singing about it. I find myself trying to explain to my son that this is what happens when music becomes genre and genre become radio format: vast expanses of America designed to sound familiar and predictable, decade after decade.
This sad state of the radio union is probably not the end of the world. However, I bring it up here because every single option I could think of in response to this Q&A could serve as an antidote to what I am complaining about. My favorite country and western covers of non-country and western songs employ the strengths of Americana – clear annunciation, accessible vocals, acoustic and warm instrumentation – to weigh in on an emotional subject matter in ways that feel common but not universal. These covers don’t intend to speak for me but to me.
This Iron Horse rendition of “Polar Opposites,” an oft-overlooked Modest Mouse song, serves as a clarification of what I am asking for from American Music: high-octane jangle dripping with potentially overstated enthusiasm underneath vocals trading in genuine experience as opposed to master symbols of Country Living: “I should go but I’ll probably stay / and that’s all you can do about some things.” By the time we get to the catchy but brutal chorus, I am singing along loudly, extolling that “I’m tryin’ / I’m tryin’ / to drink away / the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.”
Loud singing is probably the goal of all American Music. However, unlike the stuff I have been complaining about, my volume with this chorus isn’t about pride. Here, the collective sing-along acknowledges something dark, something private, a thing that lingers in many American communities but gets ignored when they get lionized into Home Towns.
In addition to providing an example of music about what feels to me like a distinctly American narrative of loss, frustration, and (potentially at least) recovery, this cover is also the tip of the Iron-Horse-covers-Modest-Mouse iceberg: shortly, I will be writing more extensively about the album from which this track has been taken.
The Walkabouts are a rare band where every cover they do is basically the definitive cover of that particular song – and they’ve done a lot of covers. I guess if you had to pin them down you’d use the label “Americana”, but their range is sprawling. Their “Maggie’s Farm” (Bob Dylan) is a blistering punk assault, their “Free Money” (Patti Smith) is a gothic dirge, their “Loom of the Land” (Nick Cave) is almost a waltz. Perhaps the best of all though is their country take on Tom Waits’ “Yesterday Is Here,” with brushed drums and plenty of fiddle. It’s a dark country though, not the bright lights of Nashville but some seedy pool hall at the far outskirts.
If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments, or e-mail it to covermefeature01(at)gmail(dot)com.
I’ll second Eric Taylor’s nomination of Graceland but rather than the familiar Nelson-ified twang version of Simon’s laughing-thru-the-tears original a better choice would be The Tallest Man on Earth/Kristian Matsson’s solo banjo version. Hard to call it solo–I’d say it is really a duet featuring banjo and the aching pain of rejection.
The top 40 radio targeted, bouncy Simon original just went in one ear and out the other. TTMoE is a musical Drill Sargent, stripping off the sheen and rebuilding it to reveal the true man beneath. It is what every cover should aspire to be. You can feel the pain that Simon was going through in ways that the original buried under almost impenetrable layers of pop.
One can debate C&W v/s Bluegrass, but hey, it’s a banjo. So, there’s that.